Ubon Ratchathani

Ubon Ratchathani

Quintessentially Isaan

A Lao-speaking granny rises before dawn to prepare food for ochre-robed monks on alms round. In a hut overlooking their paddies, farmers break for a midday meal of sticky rice with chilli paste. Young people lounge beside the Moon River after dark, discussing possibilities that their grandparents could never have imagined. In Ubon Ratchathani, the soul of Isaan keeps one foot in the past, as the other steps into the future.

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Before Lao immigrants founded Ubon Ratchathani (“Royal Lotus City”) in the 1700s, Dvaravati Mon and later Khmer people had ruled the area as far back as the fifth century CE. While minor Khmer ruins can be seen today at Prasat Ban Ben in southern Ubon province, nearby Sisaket and Surin provinces have much larger communities of ethnic Khmers. As with much of Isaan, or Northeast Thailand, a Lao dialect is widely spoken in Ubon.

Somtun Jinda. Just yum. : David Luekens.
Somtun Jinda. Just yum. Photo: David Luekens

Underrated as a travel destination, Ubon — both the city and the same-named province — attracts a trickle of independent travellers looking to wander far off the usual tourist tracks. Locals temper the language barrier by going out of their way to help travellers, who are still viewed as guests rather than opportunities for a profit. Ubon’s huge tourism potential remains largely untapped, with many travellers viewing it as nothing but a stop on the way to/from Southern Laos.

Modern Ubon city feels like a small town in many places thanks to the laid-back outlook of its roughly 200,000 residents. Mostly Lao/Isaan-Thai but also with significant numbers of Chinese- and Vietnamese-Thai, the folks in Ubon are, generally, among the most warm-hearted in Thailand. Their gentleness ends in the kitchen, however, where they churn out Isaan food so spicy that it induces tears and helplessly runny noses. Warning: it’s ... Travelfish members only (Full text is around 1,300 words.)

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